I HAVE been following with interest the case of Jayson Blair, the New York Times correspondent who managed to fool his editors over a per
iod of several years with colourful stories that he gleaned from wire services and other reporters.
Blair (27) was a rising star at the Times, arguably America’s most influential newspaper. He was also a beneficiary of the paper’s affirmative action programme.
As a result of an internal investigation by Times reporters and researchers, it has now been established that he had been making things up for years – fabricating scoops, quoting people he had never spoken to, lifting material from wire services and freely helping himself to other reporters’ copy.
He was a genius at what he did, surviving on Scotch and cigarettes, feeding the Times’ insatiable need for news. “His tools of deceit were a cellphone and a laptop computer,” the paper confessed.
Its editors were obliged to publish last month a humiliating 14 000-word confession chronicling his “long trail of destruction”.
He made good use of the paper’s internal computer network, studying pictures of news locations and then filing a story describing the scene as if he was present.
He reported on the Washington sniper attacks last year in graphic detail and recently conveyed the anguish of families who had lost loved ones in Iraq.
Times investigators have so far uncovered problems in 36 of the 73 stories he filed since getting national reporting assignments last October. Spot checks on the more than 600 articles he wrote before October have revealed further fabrications.
It was not as if the paper hadn’t been alerted to his techniques. In April 2002, the paper says, its Metropolitan editor Jonathan Landman e-mailed to newsroom administrators warning: “We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.”
But, it seems, after a spot of leave he managed to convince his editors that he had turned his life around. In October he was put on the understaffed national desk where he was tasked to cover the Washington sniper case. But the following month he was busy once again fabricating scenes and quotations undetected, the paper says.
“By March he was lying in his articles and to his editors about being at a court hearing in Virginia, in a police chief’s home in Maryland, and in front of a soldier’s home in West Virginia,” the paper disclosed.
In April he described two wounded marines lying side by side in the National Naval Medical Centre in Bethesda. One of them, Blair wrote, “questioned the legitimacy of his emotional pain as he considered his comrade in the next bed, a runner who had lost part of his leg to a land mine in Iraq”.
“It’s kind of hard to feel sorry for yourself when so many people were hurt worse or died,” the marine, Lance Cpl James Klingel, was quoted as saying.
In fact Blair had not witnessed the scene. He did speak to Klingel by phone after he had been discharged from the medical centre. But Klingel denied saying “most of that stuff”. His comments had featured as the Times’
Quotation of the Day.
On April 6, the Times reports, Blair filed a story describing a church service attended by the Rev Tandy Sloan whose missing son, an army supply clerk, had been reported dead in Iraq the previous day.
“There is no evidence that Mr Blair was either at that service or at an earlier one described in his article,” the Times said.
A photographer Blair had arranged to meet outside the church found it “maddening” that he couldn’t connect with him despite repeated calls to Blair’s cellphone. Blair said he had left the service to get his phone fixed.
In another case, he touchingly described a mother waiting for news of her missing son. He described her “turning swiftly in her chair to listen to an anchor report of a marine unit”. He also described the flowers in her front yard.
He wasn’t there, the paper says. The description of the mother and flowers came courtesy of the paper’s pictures department which had received them that night.
The family were delighted with the article. They wrote to the paper to say so.
In fact not one person who Blair claimed to have interviewed, but didn’t, contacted the paper to point it out.
Blair was just one reporter on a staff of 375, it should be mentioned. But he managed to cause immense damage to its reputation. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger described it as “a huge black eye”.
It has, needless to say, generated debate in the US media about affirmative action, never for long out of the nation’s sights as a subject of heated controversy. A prominent commentator at the Washington Post, Howard Kurtz, has argued that Blair’s race must have played a role in his rapid promotion. But others point out that the 50 stories he had corrected since his arrival at the Times (6,9%) compared favourably with the 9% of the paper’s Washington bureau reporter and 14,1% of its veteran commentator RW Apple.
The difference is, of course, they didn’t make things up! No paper could be expected to catch a determined fraudster, Times executive editor Howell Raines said before losing his job. Blair resigned earlier.
The best that can be said of all this is the way the Times did its own forensic search and then hung out its dirty laundry for the edification of the American public. It didn’t spare the detail – all 14 000 words of it!
Are we, as Zimbabwean editors, regulating our media scene with sufficient diligence? Would it be possible for a local Jayson Blair to get away with so much for so long?
It is doubtful. With much smaller newsrooms there is less excuse for editorial negligence which the New York Times openly concedes. On the other hand the American media is attached to rigorous ethical standards. It is good at policing itself.
Perhaps we need to do the same thing. And the public need an agency to complain to if they feel aggrieved with something a newspaper has published.
No proper journalist or bona fide member of the public is likely to take the government’s media commission seriously when it serves as nothing more than a crude instrument of the minister. But we do need a framework which newspapers subscribing to free expression can call their own and which media practitioners regard as fair.
Editors, in tandem with Misa, are currently giving some thought to this and at a later date, with their permission, I hope to be able to tell you more.
In the meantime, let’s hope Jayson Blair enjoys a long retirement from the profession. He could always go into advertising!